Conferences and Summer Schools

The CRC recently held a summer school on wave phenomena in Karlsruhe bringing 53 participants from 12 countries around the world to Karlsruhe to focus on their shared interest in and faszination of wave phenomena. I personally recently took part in a conference in Italy (IMSE) leading some friends and family to ask me, what a conference or summer school amongst mathematicians is like. Since you might be thinking about a future in academic research yourself, while you read this, I want to take some time to tell you a little bit about what my experiences with these two formats have been and what they offer to you as a student or young researcher.

I want to start off with some remarks on what these two formats have in common. Well both have a clearly identified topic and usually a time frame between 3 days and 2 weeks. They take place at either a university or some convenient location like a conference center or big hotel. Personally I participated in the following events:
International Supercomputing (ISC) 2012 (conference)
Analytical and Computer Assisted Methods in Mathematical Models (acamimm) in Debrecen (Hungary) 2013 (summer school)
Berlin Summer School 2014: Applied Analysis for Materials (summer school)
14th International Conference on Integral Methods in Science and Engineering (IMSE 2016) (conference)

In general I see one big difference between summer schools and conferences: While the audience of mathematical conferences consists of all academic degrees and roles, the participants of summer schools form two major groups – students and lecturers. A summer school consists of courses similar to a semester at a university. The big difference is, that these courses are held in one week – typically introducing the theory in the mornings in the form of lectures and offering some practical applications in exercise sessions in the afternoon. This compression of the educational process is made possible by removing outside disturbances and thereby creating an atmosphere, which enables all participants to learn and share their knowledge in an optimal environment. However this doesn’t mean that there is no room for spare time – on the contrary: A typical summer school schedule will contain social events in the evenings and excursions to give you a chance to also get to know the culture of the host nation or city as well the other participants. An additional feature of summer schools is the small age discrepancy among participants. In my experience, summer schools offer an amazing environment for fast learning combined with an almost holiday-like feeling. The fact that you will be focused on one main topic for the whole time and not get distracted by your day-to-day life will show you what you are capable of if you just put your mind to it.

In comparison to a summer school, a conference addresses a slightly different audience. A conference is not designed for a transfer of knowledge from one group to another but rather for networking and exchange of information. Here you won’t find a distinction between lecturers and students – all participants will be there to exchange their knowledge on the topics at hand. The two conferences I visited both also included social events but they were more focused on networking and communication than it was the case in their counterparts in summer schools. Another difference is the format of talks held at conferences: While a lecturer might give multiple lectures plus exercise courses at a summer school, it is not typical for someone to give more then one talk at a conference and usually conference talks are limited in time much more strictly. While a summer school lecture might take 90 minutes, a conference talk typically lasts 30-45 minutes plus additional time for questions from the audience.

Another obvious difference between the two formats is the schedule. While a summer school is designed to offer all participants the same learning experience and therefore the same schedule, conference talks often take place in parallel and the participants choose which ones they want to attend. Since the talks at conferences are typically more specific and in-depth, offering a multitude of options for the attendees makes sense while it would be counterproductive at summer schools.

The biggest difference however, that I am aware of, is the expectation of the audience going into the event: A student might pick any topic he or she is interested in and decide to take part in a summer school to learn about it. Their prior knowledge might be minimal and my experience from summer schools so far has been, that the level of preparation as well as even the field of study can vary massively among participants. A visit at a conference is a different endeavor altogether. One major reason is the fact that you usually have to contribute a talk about the conference topic or submit a paper. This should not be possible to someone new to the topic. Your visit should also be motivated by either speakers at the conference that you would like to communicate or collaborate with, or a keen interest in the topic (including enough prior knowledge to understand the bits and pieces that might be relevant to your own work).

The two formats have one big feature in common though: You will always meet a lot of people from all around the world who share a common interest in a mathematical topic and who are willing to collaborate and learn with you.

I also want to take the opportunity to thank the sponsors of our team at ISC’12, the KIT, the Berlin Mathematical School, the Erasmus program, the High Performance Advisory council and especially the CRC Wave phenomena for both organizing the events I mentioned above as well as providing financial support to enable students to attend them.

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